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Music Reading

Music Notation Primer

Peter Kun Frary


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Learning to read music is not difficult but requires a modest base of knowledge before practicing on your instrument. To make our introduction as simple as possible, I've reduced music reading to the bare essentials of pitch and rhythm. Thus, to begin, not much more is required than memorizing a half dozen symbols, computing simple fractions, counting to four and reciting the alphabet from A to G!

Early Music Notation c. 1310 | Sherbrooke Missal (Mass | National Library of Wales | Western music notation dates back to the late Middle Ages.

Pitch

The highness or lowness of a musical tone is called pitch. Sing the beginning of The Star-Spangled Banner. The lowest pitch is sung on “say” while the highest pitch is on “see.”

Sounds with definite pitch are called musical tones. Musical tones are typically vocalized as syllables known as solfège: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do:

Notes

Musical tones are written as graphical symbols called notes. The pitch of a musical tone is represented by its position on a staff. Notes are oval shaped symbols to which a stem, flags or beams can be added:

Staff

The staff is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces. Think of the staff as a musical ladder: the higher the placement of a note, the higher the resulting pitch. However, unlike a ladder, both the lines and the spaces between the lines serve as steps. The lines and spaces are numbered from bottom to top, i.e., from lower to higher pitch.

Clef

At the beginning of the staff is a symbol called a clef. The clef fixes the position of notes on the staff, i.e., indicates the pitch of the notes written on it. For example, the scroll of the treble or G clef wraps around the second line from the bottom, fixing that line as the note G. The guitar and ukulele use the treble or G clef but additional clefs exist for other instruments and pitch ranges. Here's the treble or G clef:

Note Names

In the United States, the first seven letters of the alphabet—A B C D E F G—are used to name the pitches of notes (other countries use solfège, i.e., do, re, mi, etc). This seven letter pattern is repeated across the entire pitch range: A B C D E F G A B C, etc.

When moving up the staff (higher in pitch), count forward through the alphabet. When moving down the staff (lower in pitch), count backwards through the alphabet. Play the audio and observe how the pitch rises as the flute plays each note. Here are the pitch names of the notes on the staff and their sounds:

The interval (distance) between two notes with the same name but eight notes apart is called an octave (e.g., D-D or E-E above). Sing this scale: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. The interval from do to do is an octave.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the structured flow of musical sounds through time. Rhythm consists of three components: beat, duration and meter.

Beat

When you dance or march you move to a steady pulse called the beat. The beat underlies most types of music and creates rhythmic drive and coherence. Listen to an example of beat:

The beat is used to measure note durations. Sing the first phrase of America while tapping your foot or clapping the beat. Observe that “My” equals 1 beat, “'tis” equals 1-1/2 beats and “sing” equals 3 beats. Three beats (clicks) are heard before the melody of America starts:

These different durations measured against a beat are called rhythms.

Meter

As you sang America you may have noticed beats are grouped in sets of three: strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak, etc. The grouping of beats in a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed pulses is called meter. Musicians define meters based on the particular pattern of stressed and unstressed beats. The meter of America is called triple meter because of the three-beat grouping.

The three most common meters:

  • Duple meter, two beats in a strong-weak pattern (1-2).
  • Triple meter, three beats in a strong-weak-weak pattern (1-2-3).
  • Quadruple meter, four beats in a strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern (1-2-3-4).

The first beat of any meter is called the downbeat.

Sing Mary had a Little Lamb while chapping the beat. Feel the strong-weak (1-2) pattern? That's the feel of duple meter. It's a favorite for marches because duple meter synchronizes perfectly with the left-right stepping pattern of two legs.

Quadruple meter is also called common time because it is used more than other meters. Most songs on the radio and popular playlists are in quadruple meter. Sing a chorus of Mine Eyes have Seen the Glory while clapping and you'll feel the groove of the strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern (1-2-3-4).

Meter is something your hear and feel while listening to music. Listen to the beat and accents in the video, Father I Adore you: find the downbeat (first accented beat) and count the beats between accents. They should add up to repeating patterns of 2, 3 or 4. What is the meter?

Father I Adore You | Frary Guitar Duo

Father I Adore You is in quadruple meter, four beats in a strong-weak-secondary strong-weak pattern (1-2-3-4).

What meter is used in the video below?

Bianco Fiore | Peter Kun Frary

Bianco is in triple meter, three beats in a strong-weak-weak pattern (1-2-3).

Note Durations

Note durations are indicated by the type of note head and the use of stems, flags or beams. Stems may point up or down for the same duration.

In the above chart, each note has a duration half that of the previous note. For example, a quarter note is half as long as a half note. The chart below further illustrates this relationship between note values.

To make rhythmic reading easier, beams replace the flag in groups of eighth note or shorter durations.

Measures

For ease of counting, the staff is divided into groups of beats known as measures. Each measure is separated by a vertical line called a bar line. A double bar line is used at the end of a piece or major section.

Each measure contains a repeating pattern of stressed and unstressed beats corresponding to the meter, e.g., duple meter, triple meter or quadruple meter.

The meter is indicated at the beginning of a piece by a meter signature, two numbers written one over the other. The top number designates the meter and number of beats in a measure. For example, 2 on top means duple meter and 2 beats per measure. The bottom number indicates the note value equal to 1 beat. For example, 4 on the bottom means a quarter note is equal to 1 beat.

In the prior example, the 4 on the bottom of the meter signatures indicate the quarter note equals 1 beat. With this information, you can calculate that the whole note equals 4 beats, the half note equals 2 beats, etc. These note durations are valid for quarter note meters only (meters with 4 on the bottom).

Counting Rhythm

Music consists of a variety of note durations: some equal to the beat, some longer than the beat and some shorter than the beat. For note durations equal to the beat or longer, count the meter aloud as you clap or play the rhythms. For example, count 1-2-3-4 in 4/4 meter, 1-2-3 in 3/4 meter and 1-2 in 2/4 meter. Align the note durations with the numbers as you count.

Counting Division

When a beat is divided into two equal parts the resulting rhythm is called division. To count division, say the word “and” between each beat number. If you speak the beat numbers and the “ands” with a steady pulse, the rhythm of the syllables will correspond to the rhythm of division. Division is written as eighth notes in quarter note meters (e.g., 2/4, 3/4 & 4/4).

Some people find numbers awkward and prefer to model rhythms on words with a similar syllable pattern. For example, a one-syllable word such as “eat” or “play” may symbolize the beat, and a two-syllable word such as “su-shi” or “steam-boat” may symbolize division. Sing the words as you clap the beat:

Singing Exercise

Now we're ready to put pitch and rhythm together. Instead of singing words, we'll use solfège, i.e., do, re, mi, etc., syllables. Solfège syllables were invented in the Medieval Catholic Church to teach people to sing and read music. First, sing this scale using the solfège syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do until it's clear in your mind:

Locate the pitch mi or (e) with your voice. It's the third note in the scale. Sing up three scale tones from do if you can't remember it. Now sing the melody below beginning on mi. All the pitches flow stepwise up and down the scale: mi, mi, fa, so, etc. Clap the beat and sing one note per beat for the quarter notes (black note heads) and two beats for the half notes at the end of each line.

Congratulations you just read music! With practice, you can learn to jump from any tone in the scale, e.g., so to do. Musicians use singing as a tool to model or visualize musical sounds: eventually you can hear these sounds in your head, understand what they are and write or play them. Some composers, e.g., Beethoven and Smetana, created their greatest works after a hearing loss because they could imagine music in their heads and write it down.

The next step is to translate the above skills and information to your instrument. Don't worry, we'll take baby steps and focus on only two or three notes per week during the semester. See you in class!

Epic Music Reading Session

Vocabulary

note, staff, clef, octave, beat, meter, meter signature, downbeat, division, solfège

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